The CEO Circle: Building community during a global pandemic

By Liza Yanovich | October 18, 2021 | Africa & The Middle East, Asia, Europe & Eurasia, The Americas |

Early in the pandemic, the CEO Circle became a safe space for the leaders of ten partner organizations and several GFC team members to share challenges, experiences, and ideas in a supportive environment.

What is the CEO Circle and how did it come to be?

The leaders of organizations working to bring about social change can sometimes feel isolated and overwhelmed, and they are frequently unable to share their struggles with their staff.

Kulsoom Khan, Global Fund for Children’s Senior Program Director for Asia, wanted to find a balance between supporting the leaders of GFC partners as individuals and supporting them as representatives of their organizations. She suggested bringing together a group of leaders, including GFC President and CEO John Hecklinger, to share experiences and challenges related to programming, organizational development, succession planning, and other topics. The idea resonated with GFC partners and staff.

The CEO Circle met for the first time on March 27, 2020. The pandemic was just starting to take hold, so the focus shifted to dealing with this unprecedented crisis.

Since then, the leaders of ten GFC partners and several GFC team members have met once a month. CEO Circle participants hail from India, Hong Kong, Guatemala, Nigeria, Uganda, Brazil, Serbia, India, Pakistan, Romania, and the US. Their organizations vary widely, but all of them are working to improve the wellbeing of children, young people, and their communities.

Participants in a gender equality festival

A gender equality festival in Romania organized by A.L.E.G., one of the organizations that participated in the CEO Circle. © A.L.E.G.

Most calls include an opportunity to catch up as individuals and a short meditation before participants dive into a specific topic. The CEO Circle welcomes occasional guests from within the GFC network and beyond.

During one session in December 2020, the CEO Circle came together to reflect on the monthly calls. We discussed what worked well and what could be improved, topics for the upcoming year, and the value the CEO Circle brings to its members and their organizations. Here’s what participants shared:


What is the value of the CEO Circle?

For GFC partners and team members, the CEO Circle built a trust-based, supportive community during a very rough year. The monthly calls fostered a feeling of connection across continents that made the world feel smaller and helped local leaders deal with the challenges they were facing. The realization that many of us experience similar struggles allowed participants to learn from each other, get new ideas, and exchange resources.

Participants said they valued having this support during the pandemic because it raised their morale and made them feel cared for, not only as the leaders of organizations, but also as human beings.

“The CEO Circle is a place to vent, a place to be vulnerable.” – A CEO Circle member

For the GFC team members who have participated in the CEO Circle, the group has helped inform their work, including shaping GFC’s approach to COVID-19 relief efforts, a blog on trust-based philanthropy, and GFC’s influencing role in the broader funder space.

Youth researchers presenting their research

Young women in Romania and Armenia conducted research on gender equality in collaboration with A.L.E.G., one of the organizations that participated in the CEO Circle, and the Women’s Resource Center Armenia. © A.L.E.G.

What changes has the CEO Circle made?

Co-creating, reflecting, and adapting

While GFC is actively involved in the CEO Circle, we intentionally step back and allow partners to lead the calls. It is important for the group to have collective ownership of the process. Participants mentioned that they would like to develop a framework for the CEO Circle, and created a loose plan for the coming months that included identifying who would lead the discussion during each session. We are also having reflective conversations more frequently, listening to each other’s feedback, and adapting accordingly.

Mobilizing resources

Participation in the CEO Circle is voluntary, and the calls do not currently involve any funding. As a result, participants have more flexibility in defining the areas on which they want to focus, and the lack of reporting requirements has contributed to increased enthusiasm for the meetings. On the other hand, many participants mentioned that having some funding for the CEO Circle would benefit the group by enabling them to plan an in-person convening, a leadership conference, or a joint project. GFC and partners are discussing the possibility of finding funding for the group in the future.

“From the beginning, it felt like everyone was on the same level; it didn’t feel like a funder-partner relationship at all.” – A CEO Circle member

Diving deeper

Participants expressed a desire to explore certain topics more deeply, but said that at times the session agendas were too packed to allow for deeper conversation. Since then, the group has selected one major topic for each call to lighten the agenda.

Participants have recently discussed a number of topics including approaches to working on gender-based violence and gender equity issues, leadership succession and continuity, and a presentation by the GlobalGiving team.


What is next for the CEO Circle?

The CEO Circle will continue to evolve based on participants’ needs. Some participants would like to see a stronger focus on mentoring, while others voiced an interest in establishing a fund for professional and organizational development.

So far, the CEO Circle has provided the flexibility to explore different avenues of learning, fostered genuine connections between participants, and enabled local leaders to support one another in difficult times. As a group, we will continue trying new approaches and adapting to new challenges.

“What we can do is small, but if we do it together, it can make a difference.” – A CEO Circle member

Header photo: CEO Circle participants during a Zoom call in April 2020. © GFC

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Global Fund for Children (GFC) UK Trust, created in 2006, is a UK registered charity (UK charity number 1119544). We work to generate vital income, create new fundraising opportunities, and raise awareness of the invaluable work of GFC’s grassroots grantees. Our aim is to extend the reach of GFC in the United Kingdom, Europe, and beyond.

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